Nina Violet and Jill Sobule at the Bearsville Theater

Nina Violet’s music shines light on wherever it is she’s playing, whether it be a dim cafe and bar or elsewhere, even if that light stems from bittersweet beauty (something many of Nina’s songs contain). The light that Nina invokes isn’t that of a carefreeness or happiness. Rather, it’s the life of human spirit — much more potent. The venue Nina happened to shine light on recently was the Bearsville Theater, where she and her band opened for Jill Sobule last Saturday.

Playing with Nina at The Bearsville Theater were Angel Russell on trumpet, Matthew Cullen on bass and guitar, Adam Howl on guitar, and Marciana Jones on omnichord and vocals. The balance of trumpet was much better this time than it was the last time I saw Nina and her band, when I found it overpowering and forceful. This time, the trumpet added to the sound of the band and blended beautifully with all of the other instruments, the viola in particular. The viola is an incredible instrument — deeper in tone than violin, but with the same deeply soulful humanistic expressionism — and it’s brilliantly utilized by Nina in numerous songs. It has a haunting quality and the sound is positively mesmerizing, as is the music Nina and her band creates. The musicians masterfully carve beautiful sounds, multi-layered and textured. There’s the velvety caress of cymbals, the brassy cutting quality of the trumpet, the sweetly soaring viola, the divine clearness of guitar, the hypnotic pulsing of bass, and delicate omnichord. And then there are the vocals…

Although she certainly doesn’t play and sing bluegrass, Nina’s voice does contain its own high lonesome sound. It strikes me right in the chest, taking my breath while giving me new breath. Her vocals contain a unique combination of deep soul and gorgeous tone, and they are only accentuated by the vocal harmonies of her sister, Marciana. Nina ended her set singing solo on one of the most beautiful lullaby’s I’ve ever heard, called “Everything Comes Apart.” Her voice is especially sweet on that one, and the song has been haunting my thoughts ever since the first time I heard it. The lyrics are stunning as well, such as “The body rots, the grass grows green.” Nature is a common theme in Nina’s music, and lyrics from other songs with this theme include “A song came on the breeze” and “Bury me where roots of trees will drink my flesh.” There’s a reverence to nature and earth that’s found in many of the songs and, as far as I’m concerned, Nina Violet is the Walt Whitman of music.

After that, Jill Sobule took the stage. I admire her for playing solo, always a courageous task. Well, she actually didn’t play solo the whole time… Joining Jill for many of her songs was Danny Blume on guitjo. Gail Ann Dorsey also took to the stage later in the show, joining Jill and Danny for a number of songs on a borrowed bass (belonging to Nina’s bassist, Matthew), and she rounded out the sound nicely. Gail is an incredible bassist, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, and hearing her was a highlight of the night for me. Danny was really good as well, and the three musicians were great as an impromptu trio.

It took me a little while to warm up to Jill (and a little while for her to warm up), but after that I enjoyed myself. Not only is Jill a singer and musician, but she’s an entertainer. She has great personality and made the crowd laugh, both with her songs and between-song chatting. Her songs have interesting topics, and Jill uses humor as a medium for discussing weighty topics — literally and figuratively. Topics covered during her performance in Bearsville included anorexia, homosexuality, fascism, and Nazis. Between the song about a girl at a gym who has anorexia and an end-of-the-world love song, I was bewildered. Some of her songs were surprisingly sweet and vulnerable, some slightly crass, many of them crazy. Jill has a folksy vibe, yet she likes to go on rocker detours in the middle of her songs, kicking on the distortion. That kind of works. Gives me whiplash a little, but it kind of works. The woman is somewhat of an enigma: she sings in a cutesy fashion, but the lyrics are anything but cute; she plays quiet folk at times, but then lets loose her inner rocker; she’s confident, but self-deprecating. To put it more clearly, Jill Sobule is confusing — but in a good way.

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